May 2005 | Commentary | EcoDev

Building a Better Warehouse

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Choosing the right site for locating a warehouse or distribution center (DC) is a key challenge for any business. Numerous factors—such as access to transportation, an available worker pool, community support, and environmental regulations—converge to make a certain location a prime spot for meeting one company's transportation and distribution goals, while sounding a death knell for another's.

But the right location alone does not make an effective warehouse strategy. Manufacturers and retailers are fast learning that what's inside the warehouse is equally as important when building a successful distribution effort. Half the battle of site selection is finding a warehouse equipped to meet your specific needs.

Every building starts with a great foundation. Design-build contractors specializing in warehouse and distribution centers have moved beyond the standard concrete pour to incorporate new functionalities in warehouse design. These include:

Flat, smooth floors. The value of remote-controlled equipment that requires wire guidance along the floor to direct automated picking devices has proven to be worth the investment. Contractors pay greater attention now to pouring techniques and floor finishing, as they target "floor flatness" goals.

Builders also use elaborate caulking and sealing systems to eliminate as many bumps and gaps as possible in the flooring system. The smoother the ride, the less wear and tear on expensive warehouse equipment.

Higher ceilings. Because electronic picking equipment makes shelving height a non-issue for warehouse staff, taller buildings—35 feet to 40 feet and higher—are more cost-effective for distribution center owners. It's cheaper to build up than out.

Versatile floor space. Builders are preserving valuable floor space by suspending conveyance systems or HVAC systems from warehouse roofs. This gives companies more options for reorganizing the warehouse, based on specific requirements.

Security: A New Reality

The importance of warehouse security has increased drastically during the past few years. Businesses have begun to realize they can gain cost efficiencies by including security practices in warehouse design.

In newer warehouses, traditional perimeter security is beefed up with fencing, infrared beam detectors, motion sensors, and sophisticated camera systems.

Many older warehouses have made modifications geared toward protecting employees. These include employee identification equipment at building entrances, and accessible intercom systems so employees can immediately report unusual activity from anywhere on the property.

Government, safety, and industry regulations also drive security requirements. From climate-controlled spaces, to tamper-proof packing zones and storage areas for flammable or aerosol products, warehouse owners are now required to provide secured space for specific types of inventory. Delivery and shipping areas also must include space to check unbroken bar codes over box seams, or scan thermal seals on food shipments. New warehouses are designed to accommodate these procedures.

But even the most efficiently designed warehouse is no match for the weather.

Savvy businesses request the latest generation of lightning protection in their DCs. Others want provisions and equipment for emergency power generation—investments that paid off during last year's hurricanes in Florida, for instance.

Businesses today recognize the huge costs and consequences of being knocked out of operation. Rather than wait for repair teams from local utility companies after disaster strikes, they are planning ahead.

Unlike old warehouse districts found in the urban core and along railroad lines, today's new distribution centers are often in suburban office parks fed by interstate highways. Access to rail, however, is making a comeback among warehouse buyers and builders.

As businesses seek cheaper land and lower taxes, the shift from older cities means new job opportunities for rural residents. These rural locations traditionally lacked the amenities to attract and retain employees.

But today's facilities boast video conference capabilities, exercise rooms, training rooms, cafeterias, softball fields and basketball courts, satellite TV, and even fueling islands for employee vehicles. In addition to these amenities, new warehouse designs reflect an increasing concern for worker safety and comfort.

DC employees typically perform their work within 15 feet of the warehouse floor, according to recent research. Temperature stratification at the worker level is now mitigated by new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning design strategies, such as directing airflow from a rooftop unit to specific elevations throughout the plant.

This means cool air continues to move around employee workstations in the summer, and rising hot air is pushed back down to the employee level in the winter. A versatile HVAC system offers seasonal utility cost savings that should not be ignored in the design-build process.

As with the rest of the supply chain, warehouse technology, strategy, and design will continue to evolve.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is generating tremendous buzz, and it's only the tip of the technology iceberg. Virtual warehouses may be part of our future, but until then, the warehouse-logistics partnership continues to ensure that goods get to the end user via the most direct route. Warehouses will continue adapting to changing demands, and expanding to accommodate the product volumes that consumers demand.

Tomorrow's challenges may come from anywhere—fuel costs, trade restrictions, rail line access, and Internet security, among others. Moving goods throughout the distribution network is a scientific art form: timing combined with technology.

While giant retailers may demand RFID to track shipments and inventory, other warehouse owners and operators continue to fine- tune their facilities to keep pace with additional logistics technologies.

Both inside and outside the four walls, business are looking to find and build better warehouses. Warehouse owners, employees, and contractors who build the next generation of DCs need to work together to best meet these challenges.

Having the right warehouse in the right location is a one-two punch that's sure to knock out inefficiencies in any distribution network.

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